by Rob Steiner
Fear kept Karak from reaching out and breaking Crane’s neck while the witchman led him through dark twisting corridors in whatever dungeon Karak was a prisoner. Karak feared Crane might not die, and he feared what Crane might do to him if he failed. But Karak’s fear enraged him even more. Not only was he angry that he was a prisoner, but that the only thing keeping him from doing something about it was…himself.
“What is this place?” Karak asked in a strained voice. He wanted to do anything to get his mind off his self-loathing, and if that meant talking to Crane, so be it.
“This is my house,” Crane said, glancing back at him with a gruesome smile. Karak could not help but stare at all those teeth each time Crane smiled. Maybe that was why Crane smiled so much.
“More precisely, the catacombs beneath my house. Do you like it?”
“It’s dark,” Karak said.
Crane laughed. “Yes, I suppose it is. Sort of cliché of me, yes? The evil demon with his own personal underworld.”
“The thought occurred to me.”
Crane clicked his tongue as his black, gnarled cane tapped the stone floor with each step. “You must realize, Mr. Frost, that appearances are not always what they seem. You believe that I am evil, but I can assure you I work for the greater good of all. Only through my patron’s wisdom can the world renew itself into something stronger and fitter to survive, to thrive even.”
Crane turned his head to Karak again and grinned. “Ah, but I am getting ahead of myself. Where is the fun if I tell you everything now? If you are like me, it will take a…demonstration to make you a believer.”
Crane continued on, whistling a strange tune that Karak had never heard.
They made several turns in the dank, dark corridors, and Karak began to wonder if Crane was lost, or if he was going in circles to confuse Karak. Every corridor looked the same. All were lit by torches that Karak thought would take an army of servants to maintain. All were made of sharp red bricks laid in such careless, haphazard rows that Karak was amazed the corridors had not caved in. They would occasionally pass iron-banded wooden doors with small, barred windows in the center. Karak glanced into each one, but saw only darkness. In one, he heard what sounded like a giggling child, and it made the hairs on his arms stand. In another, he heard someone retch, and then a sickening splatter.
“Where are we going?” Karak asked, more to mask the terrible moaning he heard from a passing door than out of curiosity.
“You will see when we get there,” Crane said, then continued whistling. But two steps later, he stopped in front of an iron-banded door similar to the dozen or so they had passed. “Ah, here we are.”
Karak peered through the barred window, but just as in all the others, he saw only darkness. At least there were no horrid sounds or foul smells coming from this one. Crane produced a blackened key from his pocket, inserted it into the lock, then pushed open the door.
For a moment, Karak wondered if this was where Crane was going to put him, that he would end up like the other sorry souls behind the previous doors, spending the rest of his life retching and giggling in the dark.
But Karak’s dread turned to awe in an instant. Through the door, Karak saw what could only be described as the sun lit suite of a king. Crane stopped a few steps from the door, turned, and said, “Do not dally, Mr. Frost. My patron hates waiting.”
Crane waited for Karak to take his halting steps into the room, then pushed the door closed with a heavy slam. Karak turned and saw that there was no door behind him. It was a seamless white plaster wall with a small portrait of a grim-faced woman standing on the deck of a ship with stormy seas behind her. Her eyes seemed to stare directly at Karak, and he had to look away for fear she might blink at him. After the supernaturalist events of the last few days, he did not want to take that risk.
Crane led Karak past a large bed that could have comfortably held five. The bed was made with white silk covers and matching pillows. On the white plaster walls were paintings of various sizes showing sceneries, battles, and important looking nobles affecting proud poses. Tables filled with neat, organized piles of books and parchments stood throughout the room, and cushioned chairs were arranged next to large, crystal reading lamps.
Beyond the bed was a balcony with open, double-glass doors. Sunlight poured through the window, accompanied by fresh salty air mingling with the familiar odors of a large city—horses, cooking food, and sweaty bodies. Karak went to the balcony and took in a breathtaking view of a large city below a cloudless sky. Bright blue water lay beyond it. The palace in which Karak stood sat upon a bluff overlooking a city on the coast of a sea.
“Mr. Frost,” Crane said, sounding annoyed. He stood at the door to the large bedroom, his hand on the knob. “We have an appointment to keep…”
Karak went to Crane, who opened the door and beckoned him through. The hall they entered was long and decorated just as lavishly as the bedroom. Finely woven carpets ran up and down the hall, and windows along the left side showed a beautiful garden filled with flowers of all colors and sizes. The entire garden was surrounded by the walls of a three-story palace. Karak saw six men wearing white shirts and tanned breeches stooped over the garden pulling weeds and planting new flowers. A tall fountain dominated the center of the garden, where a bronze sculpture of a bearded man stood on a pedestal in the center. Water spouted from mouths of small, stone children ringing the pedestal. The man rested his left hand on the hilt of his sword at his side, while his right hand was raised above his head, as if reaching for something. The man looked vaguely familiar, but Karak could not place him at the moment.
As they walked down the hall, Crane resumed whistling the same tune he had in the dark corridors. Several servants in gold livery with black trim around the edges lowered their heads as Crane walked by. The servants kept their heads lowered until Crane had passed, then continued on with their tasks when Crane was a dozen paces away. Karak watched some of them, but was only rewarded with a glance from one brown-haired girl. When she saw him looking at her, she turned away and quickly entered a nearby room.
Crane stopped at the entry that led to a spiral stone staircase that wound its way upward. Two men wearing gleaming chain mail and holding muskets with polished bayonets stood on either side of the arch, staring straight ahead. Karak noticed each one tense as Crane walked by, but they did not stop him or Karak from ascending the stairs.
“I hope all that time sitting on your ass has not made your legs weak,” Crane said. “It is a rather long climb.”
And Crane did not exaggerate. Round and round they climbed, higher and higher. There were small windows placed periodically along the way up, and Karak could judge their height with a glance at the city far below. By the time they reached a platform at the top, Karak’s heart was pounding and he felt a fine sheen of sweat on his brow. He noted with dismay, however, that Crane was not even breathing heavily.
They passed through an open arch and into a circular room that was surrounded on all sides by windows. In front of Karak were glass, double doors that led to a covered balcony that ringed the entire outer wall of the room. He recognized the view of the bay in front of him, but to his left lay forested mountains stretching off into the distance, while to his right was a flat plain of green grass dotted with tiny farms and villages to the horizon.
Shelves filled with books and parchments lined the interior of the room below the windows. Several tables held stacks of maps, parchments, open books, and loose letters, all looking much more disorganized than the bedroom below, as if no servants were allowed to ascend the stairs to clean up.
“Ah,” said a voice behind Karak. He turned to see a man rise from a mahogany desk set in an alcove in the walls. He had a dark red beard that was neatly trimmed and hardly more than stubble. The same colored hair was tied back in a ponytail. He wore a white shirt with a gold coat, black breeches, and gleaming black boots. He walked from behind his desk and strode toward Karak and Crane with a friendly smile.
Crane fell to his knees and touched his forehead to the ground before the man. “My lord,” Crane said in an awed whisper. Karak was surprised to hear the same fear in Crane that Karak had seen in the eyes of the servants below.
“Rise, my friend,” the man said with good-natured impatience. Crane rose to his feet, but kept his head lowered and his gaze on the floor.
“You are going to make our new friend here think I am some tyrant who demands constant prostrations from his servants,” the man said. He had a thick accent that brought Karak the sudden, crashing realization of where he was and the identity of the man he faced. It was the same man whose sculpture sat atop the fountain in the garden below.
The King of Mazumdahr winked at Karak and said, “Well, maybe from some of them.”
He extended his hand to Karak, and Karak took the King’s icy, but firm grip into his own.
“I am Savix,” he said. “And I am so pleased to finally meet you, Mr. Frost.”